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October 12, 2007

Separating Art and Artist

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Can a work of art be evaluated without reference to the personal qualities of the artist who created it?

Should a work of art be evaluated without reference to the personal qualities of the artist who created it?

I'm only a casual reader of art criticism, but it strikes me that these are perennial questions that seem to pop up whenever an artist is "controversial." The idealistic response, if I understand the issue correctly, is that a work of art both can and should be evaluated independently of the artist.

And as surely as the New York City sun rises over the East River and sets over the Hudson, this ideal is honored in the breach.

I don't keep statistics on this, so I'm just guessing when I say that qualities of the artist tend to enter the scene when the critic does not like those qualities. This approach can be difficult for the critic if the artist has produced works that, by consensus, are considered great or even significant. That is, the critic might agonize, as Michael did (very mildly) here over film-maker and Hitler groupie Leni Riefenstahl.

Poet Ezra Pound was another problematical case from the age of Fascism as was, to a much lesser degree, Herbert von Karajan.

And it's my impression (correct me if I'm wrong) that current academic critics are quick to veer from the art to dwell on the hated racist/patriarchal/capitalist/whatever social milieu that spawned the item being evaluated.

It's less common, but occasionally artist qualities the critic approves of or finds worthy can enter into the evaluation. To me, the prime example is Frida Kahlo whose wretched/tragic life seems to outshine her art. Let's see ... she was female, crippled, married to famous artist Diego Rivera, died young, and was a Communist or fellow traveler. At any rate, when I see references to her, it's the biography that's stressed, not so much her paintings. Perhaps that's because, down deep, the critics realize that her art was banal and repetitive -- not top-grade stuff.



posted by Donald at October 12, 2007


The public intellectuals have been rather inconsistent on this issue. They encouraged people to admire the works of the Hollywood Ten, who more or less sympathized with communism, such as the gifted Carl Foreman, and yet have wanted to prohibit us from enjoying the works of, say, Richard Wagner. There was an effort some while ago to boycott a showing in New York of the western paintings of Frederick Remington on the ground that he was an anti-semite. The only viable view, I believe, is to gauge the artistic work on its own merits, regardless of the affiliations or prejudices of its creator. We can admire the art for its aesthetic value, while deploring the views of its creator.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on October 12, 2007 1:16 PM

Donald, you say, "And it's my impression (correct me if I'm wrong) that current academic critics are quick to veer from the art to dwell on the hated racist/patriarchal/capitalist/whatever social milieu that spawned the item being evaluated."

I read a fair amount of art magazines and, while I sometimes find a passing references to the milieu the artist may have been part of, in the main I don't share your impression.

For me, the ideal is to judge art on its own merits and the artist on their own merits. If reports are to be believed, Caravaggio was a thug but his paintings are sublime. With this said, living artists or those from the reasonably recent past may be well known by peers and critics alike as arrogant egotists and this will no doubt negatively color what is written about them. Or they may be extremely colorful characters, which makes for good copy and thus may lead to more sympathetic views of their art.

Posted by: Chris White on October 12, 2007 1:45 PM

I think it's a great question, not that I have any answers. There's something ideal about the pure contemplation of a given work. Yet it's almost impossible not to let other factors enter into the experience -- what you might know or have heard about the artist, that kind of thing. And what's wrong with that, really? It might be a mistake to be *entirely* swayed by thoughts or info about the artist, the era, the style, etc. But maybe there's nothing wrong with letting all that info be the buzz it wants to be.

But how can what we know about the artist not have an impact? Feelings about Shakespeare would certainly change a bit if someone discovered that he was a murderer, for instance. I can guarantee that my feelings about Caravaggio's work would change if it were shown that he *wasn't* a murderer.

On the other hand, I think Richard's points (and way of contending) are/is really great.

Interested to hear how people contend with all this. For myself, I just let myself go back and forth between pure-contemplation-of-the-object and letting-myself-attend-to-the-background-noise. That's not an answer, god knows. But is there an once and for all final answer?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 12, 2007 3:19 PM

A good question and some great comments here, mostly agreeing that the art should be seen on its own, separate from the artist (as in literature, the author). I would think that one of the things the artwork might do is interest the viewer to seek out more information on the artist.

Is there a final answer? No, nor should there be, since art is best given to each individual viewer to interpret and decide for him/herself what is asks.

BTW, once the background of the artist is known, if it be deplorable, the art still stands separate unless it contains exactly the political, religious, deep dark horrendous or whatever statement the artist is purposefully making by it.

Posted by: susan on October 12, 2007 3:50 PM

Frida Kahlo had that eyebrow to contend with. Nuff said.

Posted by: ricpic on October 12, 2007 9:13 PM

I'm glad someone else agrees with me about the quality of Kahlo's art.

Posted by: jult52 on October 18, 2007 6:20 AM

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